Puffing on a nicotine inhaler device doubled smokers' chances of quitting, researchers found.

Otago University researchers developed the device, a standard asthma-style inhaler, and gave it to study participants either with, or without nicotine in it. The participants also used nicotine patches.

Those with nicotine in their metered-dose puffers had twice the quit-smoking rate of those with the "placebo" inhalers, according to the study, published today in the journal Nicotine and Tobacco Research.

The University of Otago study found using nicotine inhalers helped smokers quit. Photo / Supplied
The University of Otago study found using nicotine inhalers helped smokers quit. Photo / Supplied

"This is the first study to show that inhaled nicotine from a metered-dose inhaler in the context of a smoker wanting to stop doubles their chances of quitting," said study leader Professor Julian Crane.


"Currently most smokers use nicotine patches to help them stop smoking. This study shows that if you add a nicotine inhaler to a nicotine patch, it doubles the chances of quitting over a nicotine patch alone.

"There is considerable debate about whether inhaled nicotine is helpful for people who wish to stop smoking."

Professor Crane notes that although there is much interest in the use of electronic cigarettes to help smokers quit tobacco, New Zealand and many other countries are hesitant to introduce them to the market, especially as they are largely unregulated and untested.

E-cigarettes are battery-powered devices which users suck on to inhale a nicotine mist. They are in a legal twilight zone in New Zealand. Sales of nicotine-containing e-cigarettes and the liquid nicotine is technically unlawful although the Ministry of Health has only rarely taken any enforcement action. Users can legally import nicotine via the internet for personal use.

A University of Auckland trial of e-cigarettes, reported in 2013, found they were as good as nicotine patches as an aid to quitting smoking. Some researchers were disappointed by those results which they believe were influenced by the e-cigarettes in the trial delivering less nicotine than later models.

Public health researchers internationally are generally divided between those who think e-cigarettes are a promising quit-smoking aid which should be lightly regulated to encourage their development and adoption, and those who worry they may become a gateway to tobacco smoking and should be heavily regulated like a registered medicine.

Professor Crane said that, unlike e-cigarettes, his group's nicotine inhaler has "no physical association to smoking itself".

"It also has benefits in that it is much less likely to be used inappropriately to administer other drugs given that it is a completely sealed unit.

"New Zealand has been a world leader in tobacco control public policy and this new home-grown development offers a world-first opportunity to help the 80 per cent or more of smokers who want to quit achieve their aims."

The researchers are looking into how to make their inhaler available to all smokers who would like to use it.